Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Do Christians, Jews and Muslims Worship the Same God?

by Andrew Jones


Abraham and his family (by Jozsef Molnar, 1850)
(source: everyhistory.org)

When postulating the similarities between religious views of God, evidence provided by religious scripture offers the most effective means of deliberating these similarities. Particularly in addressing these concepts, the nature of the Gods involved form a key pillar on which to decipher whether Christianity, Judaism and Islam really worship the same God. The underlying origins of all three Abrahamic faiths do seem to lend themselves to a conclusion that these faiths do worship similar Gods. Yet the differing methods by which these Gods chiefly reveal themselves, combined with the ever widening differences between these faiths, could begin to undermine such an interpretation.

To deliberate the similarities between these religious views of God, the nature of the God perhaps offers the backbone to such an investigation. Perhaps one of the key aspects of all views on deities is their  omnipotence, revealed primarily through religious scripture although developed by centuries of scholars. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share this view that God must be omnipotent. Judeo-Christian scripture highlights God's power, although primarily scholars have utilized the creation story as a perfect representation of God's omnipotence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).” Despite the use particularly of the creation story by scholars to argue for the Christian God's omnipotence, other passages in the Bible display God's power: “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? (Job 40:9).” These taunts to Job about the qualities of God, illustrate a Christian God's omnipotence. The Torah reveals similar views about the omnipotence of God, mainly due to the sharing of many Old Testament chapters with Christians, leading to almost identical impressions of God: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy (Exodus).” The Qur'an similarly refers to the omnipotence of Allah, indeed far more explicitly than the religious scripture of Christianity or Judaism: “If God wills, He can take away their hearing and their eyesight. God is Omnipotent (Chap 2:20).” These verses from the Bible, Qur'an and Torah display clear similarities between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish perception that God is omnipotent, suggesting that these faiths do indeed worship similar Gods.

As well as a shared belief in an omnipotent God, Christians, Jews and Muslims similarly believe that God is omniscient. Indeed these traits could be linked, as arguably God's omnipotence surely must lend itself to the following traits such as omniscience and omnipresence. Islamic religious scripture offers a slightly more explicit approach, when referring to this aspect of God, than the other faiths. With regard to omniscience, the Qur'an highlights Allah's possession of this trait: “Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in God has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. God is Hearer, Omniscient (Chap 2:256).” This belief is shared amongst Christians and Jews, that God is omniscient, with the capacity to know the past, present and future of all elements within the universe: complete knowledge. As with the Qur'an, the Bible also displays God as being omniscient: “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything (John 3:19).” Similarly, using the Torah, the nature of God is shown to include omniscience within Judaism: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God (Deutronomy).” Through these references to the nature of God as including both omnipotence as well as omniscience it is possible to begin to conclude that Christians, Muslims and Jews, do worship Gods with similar characteristics.
 
Christianity, Judaism and Islam follow a successive line of both faiths and philosophers to include eternal necessary existence as a key characteristic of God. Indeed Alvin Plantinga uses necessary existence in conjunction with an ontological style argument to prove God's existence. Although the God of the philosopher's eternal existence is based predominantly on reasoning, both a priori and a posteriori, religious views are based primarily on scriptural writing as well as concepts proposed by theologians. In regard to eternal existence, the Bible offers a number of passages which display eternal existence, although the majority refer primarily to God offering eternal existence through Jesus. Yet the Bible displays explicitly a God who eternally sustains creation, suggesting eternal existence: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27).” As Deuteronomy is common to both the Bible and the Torah, this passage provides evidence to display the similarities between Christian and Jewish ideas on the nature of God's existence. As one would expect, Islamic scripture follows suit in proclaiming Allah's eternal existence: “Say: 'God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten (112:1)” These similar attitudes to the nature of God's existence by Christianity, Judaism and Islam do, in conjunction with other similarities with regard to their perceptions of God, suggest that the three religions worship the same God.

Perhaps one of the characteristics of God undervalued by modern theology is God's omnipresence. As with the other characteristics of both God and his existence, religious scripture from Christianity, Islam and Judaism seemingly agree. The Bible has largely dictated perceptions held by modern Christianity. On the subject of omnipresence, the Bible displays it as a key trait of God: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3).” Similarly Islam attributes omnipresence to their deity Allah within the Qur'an, displaying substantial similarities when considered with other similarities between the beliefs about the nature of God in these faiths: “To God belongs the East and West. Whichever way you turn there is the face of God. God is omnipresent and all knowing.” Whilst passages within the Qur'an as well as the Bible seem to explicitly argue that God is omnipresent, passages within the Torah fail to be as equally vocal, which has forced theologians to interpret certain events as displaying God's omnipresence. Despite this, Jewish beliefs in God's omnipresence can be demonstrated through the numerous names which Torah scholars have associated with God. “HaMakom” literally translates to “the place” referring to God's omnipresence displaying it, as with Christianity and Islam, to be a believed attribute of God, suggesting that these faiths do indeed worship similar versions of God.

Whereas traits such as God's omnipotence or omniscience are explicitly defined in religious scripture, God's benevolence offers a far more contentious subject in all of these faiths. Indeed Richard Dawkins, utilizing passages from the Bible, has argued that the God displayed, far from being loving, is instead “obnoxious.” Mainly this area of contention within religious scripture is due predominantly to events in the Christian Old Testament which challenge the view that God is omnibenevolent. Taking a Christian event as a demonstration, God is rather shown to be vengeful as opposed to loving and forgiving: “The Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”  This debate within the individual faiths undermines the ability to argue that these faiths worship the same God, as individual religious texts offer vastly differing interpretations which could be accepted to a differing degree. Whereas other traits such as omnipotence offer little contention, the alternative interpretations on God's benevolence weakens the similarities between the views presented by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This challenges the extent to which the view that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God can be supported.

In broad terms, however, all of these faiths do strive to believe in a benevolent God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” This demonstration of God's love can be similarly found in Islamic and Jewish scripture. Indeed many of the ninety-nine names of Allah refer to his benevolence; names such as “Ar Rahm├ón” which refers to Allah as the most compassionate, beneficent. Similarly in Judaism the Torah refers to God's overall benevolence: “Know that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generation of those who love him and keep his commands (Deuteronomy 7:9).” These passages from religious scripture seem to illustrate a common belief in a benevolent God, yet certain actions within the same works challenge this, allowing for differing interpretations that undermine the ability to argue a belief in God's benevolence; again, this suggests that that Christianity, Judaism and Islam worship similar Gods.

Whilst these overarching similarities may lead to a conclusion that Christians, Jews and Muslims do worship the same God, certain aspects do undermine this link. Dealing with a Christian view of God, one of the primary challenges arises from the belief in the Trinity of God as opposed to a Unitarian view which is proposed by Islam and Judaism. Indeed this is demonstrated in the Apostles' Creed, which originates from the late fourth century: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord... I believe in the Holy Ghost.” This credal display of the beliefs of Christians in regard to the three aspects of God is unlike any concept proposed by Islam or Judaism. This is mainly due to the Christian belief that Jesus was the Son of God as opposed to a Prophet. This distinct aspect of Christianity seemingly undermines the extent to which it can be argued that Christianity, Judaism and Islam worship the same God. The Qur'an strictly rejects the concept of Allah being divided by a Trinity: “So believe in god and his apostles and do not say: 'Three.' Forbear, and it shall be better for your. God is but one God. God forbid that he should have a son.” This demonstrates the stark contrasts between Christianity and Islam which undermines the ability to consider their views of God similar.  Despite certain denominations such as Unitarians rejecting the belief in the Trinity, the wide usage of the Apostles' Creed suggests that such an argument does have bearing on the theological differences. Another key distinction, which has already be touched upon, is the belief that Christ is the Son of God: “For God so loveth the world, that he hath given his only son (John 3:16).” As an aspect of God surely this also challenges whether Christians do worship a similar version of God to Jews and Muslims. Especially when the position of Christ as part of the Trinity of God is considered.

Aside from the key differences between Islamic beliefs about the nature of God in comparison to a Christian version, the nature of Allah seemingly provides fewer major challenges than Christian beliefs. One of the slightly less crucial differences refer to the ninety-nine names of Allah which display certain differences. The illustrations of God's nature in the Torah and the Bible show a personal God: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” By comparison to this personal, caring God, Allah is demonstrated to be slightly more detached, but, like the Christian God, is presented as compassionate: “As for its evil deeds, it will wish they were a long way off. God admonishes you to fear Him. God is compassionate towards His servants (3:32).” This subtle difference between the nature of Allah in comparison to the Christian and Jewish versions of God does seem to complicate the the extent to which it is possible to argue that these faiths worship the same God.

When comparing Jewish concepts on the nature of God with that of Christianity and Islam, fewer differences seem to arise aside from those aforementioned. One key distinction which has been drawn in relation to these differences relates to the sacrifice of Isaac which Jewish theologians have struggled to understand. Utilizing this event, the Jewish God is demonstrated to be slightly more mysterious as well as beyond understanding than either a Christian or Islamic version: “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me (Genesis 22:12).” This passage applies similarly to a Christian God with a comparable narrative in the Qur'an documenting the near sacrifice of Ishmael. Whereas the Christian and Islamic beliefs about the nature of God stem from a range of scriptural texts, Judaism utilizes the story of Isaac to a far greater extent, which displays a more mysterious God in nature, with reasoning which is beyond human understanding.

Whilst the evidence provided within religious scripture does demonstrate similarities between the respective natures of God, the work of scholars has also had a profound effect on religious beliefs. This therefore means that an investigation into whether Christianity, Judaism and Islam follow the same God should consider the similarities between the works of religious scholars when thinking about the nature of God. Christian scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury stipulated that God must be the greatest conceivable being, conforming to descriptions such as omnipotence demonstrated in the Bible: “And we believe that thou art a being which nothing greater can be conceived (Basic Writings).” Islamic scholars have taken a similar approach to Anselm in proclaiming Allah to be greatest possible being. One of the more prominent of these comparable scholars is Imam Ibn al-Jazari who referred to the comparative greatness of Allah in much the same way as Anselm. Another key similarity between Christian, Muslim and Jewish theologians is their belief in a single indivisible God despite Christianity's belief in the Trinity of God. Related ideas have been produced by scholars such as Ibn Al Arabi, Moses Maimonides and St Thomas Aquinas. Ibn was particularly inspired by sections of the Qur'an which refer to an individual single God: “And your God is One God: There is no God but he (2:163).” Despite these similarities within the theodicies of certain theologians, again the existence of the Trinity within Christian theology presents a stark contrast. St Augustine argued that “In no subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more rewarding.” However, proponents of the Arian heresy such as Eusebius of Nicomedia, have challenged whether Jesus could be considered equal, adopting a theological stance that does seem more compatible with Islam and Judaism. However such a stance has not been widely accepted, demonstrated in the comments of C.S Lewis: “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that "God is love." But they seem not to notice that the words 'God is love' have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons (Beyond personality p21).” This rebuttal of the Arian proposition demonstrates a divide between scholars over the nature of God between these faiths, undermining the extent to which it can be argued that these faiths do worship the same God.

Examining the nature of God provides a necessary backbone with which to base an exploration of the similarities and differences between beliefs about God. An extension of this, would be to compare the similarities of God's actions centring primarily around the creation story. Whereas there are differences between Christianity and Islam on the nature of God, the creation story offers few differences. Both Christianity and Judaism share identical creation stories, according to Genesis present in both the Torah and the Bible: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” This crucially presents God as having creatio ex nihilo a trait which is also shared within Islam: “He created the heavens and the earth to manifest the truth.” This demonstrates the material creation of the earth, yet similarities can also be found in the creation of Adam and Eve. The Qur'an refers to the fashioning of Adam: “We created man from dry clay, from black moulded loam.” In an almost identical way, Genesis refers to the creation of man from dust: “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7).” These identical aspects to the creation story, demonstrate the Christian, Jewish and Muslim versions of God acting in almost identical ways, suggesting that these faiths do worship the same God. Perhaps one of the few differences within the creation story, lies in whether or not man was created in the image of God. The Genesis version of the creation story stipulates that indeed man was created specifically in the image of God: “Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” This directly contrasts the Qur'an's version in which Allah is shown to have moulded humans to the best proportions: “Your gracious Lord who created you, and gave you due proportions and an upright form. In whatever shape he willed he could have moulded you.” This offers one of the only differences between the way in which Allah and the Judeo-Christian God created the universe. This difference does however limit the extent to which it can be concluded that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God.

The method through which the versions of God decided to reveal themselves also offers an area in which the similarities and differences can be explored. Many key passages within the Qur'an, the Bible and the Torah are believed to be the result of direct verbal inspiration, therefore the true Word of God, although the extent to which this is the case is debatable. Within Islam this method of verbal inspiration is applied to the entirety of the Qur'an: “Revealed by the Compassionate, the Merciful: a Book of revelations well expounded, an Arabic Koran for men of knowledge (41:1)” Revealed to Mohammed, the final Prophet, this offers a key distinction in that the Bible and the Torah are believed to have been revealed to a number of writers. In comparison to this, Christianity predominantly uses the New Testament which offers a divinely inspired account of the life of Jesus, God's son, through the recollections of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many scriptural events in the Old Testament by contrast are believed to have been verbally inspired directly: “And God spoke all these words, saying. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (22:2).” This displays the Christian Bible as offering a mixture of both verbally and divinely inspired accounts, which contrasts with the wholly verbally inspired Qur'an and Torah. These differing methods of revelation which God has chosen, demonstrate key differences which undermine the ability to argue that Christianity, Judaism and Islam worship the same God.

Despite the importance of both religious scripture and the work of theologians, modern perceptions of individual religious believers should also be considered. In an age when some proponents of specific interpretations of Christianity, Islam and Judaism threaten violence on the basis of religious belief, the similarities between the religions seems compromised. Indeed taking a recent example, the case of Anders Breivek massacring 77 innocent civilians in order to demonstrate his outrage at the perceived influence of Islam over Norwegian culture. Britain, which is labelled a Christian country, recently demonstrated in a survey the negative attitudes towards Islam: “while just one in four felt positively about Islam (Telegraph Jan 2010).” When using statistics to decide as to whether modern religious believers do believe in similar views of God across these faiths, there is a lack of information which could make it difficult to draw reliable conclusions. In a survey of Americans, however, 48.7% felt that God was concerned with the well being of the World, which is supported by certain passages within the Quran: “The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it.” The appointment of humans as stewards demonstrates Allah's aim to care for creation through human action. Yet without further evidence, modern perceptions of religious believers cannot offer any concrete evidence to either undermine or support the argument that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God.

After carefully exploring the individual characteristics which each faith assigns to their beliefs about God, religious scripture in conjunction with the works of scholars suggests a great number of similarities. However certain aspects such as the Christian belief in the Trinity challenge and undermine this. The almost identical descriptions of God's actions also do seemingly demonstrate clear links between the beliefs of each faith in respect to God. Therefore despite modern perceptions seemingly demonstrated these faiths to be divided, particularly between Christianity and Islam, they share many concepts surrounding God, suggesting that they do worship the same God.


 

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